Israelis' Distrust in State Institutions Is Turning Into an Existential Threat

A year after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the three-fold crisis plaguing Israeli society threatens the basic contract between the state and its citizenry, and has led to a lack of trust in government leaders and institutions and an 'unparalleled degree of polarization'

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A demonstration against Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem, this month.
A demonstration against Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem, this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nadan Feldman.
Nadan Feldman
Nadan Feldman.
Nadan Feldman

Late in the evening on the last day of 2020, hundreds of people arrived at the coronavirus vaccination site in Jerusalem’s Arena indoor stadium. They arrived without warning and without having made appointments for their inoculations. Across the coronavirus-ridden city, the rumor had spread that even those not entitled, by age, to be vaccinated could get the shot because there was a vaccine surplus.

This was at the start of the vaccination campaign, when only the over-60 population was being vaccinated through the health maintenance organizations by prior appointment. Nevertheless, on this particular day, a large number of people showed up at the Arena in the hope that they would be able to get the first of their two doses by 10 P.M., closing time, even though there was nothing to indicate that this would be the case. On the contrary: The nurses implored them to go home and said repeatedly that there were no surplus doses. But no one budged. “People simply didn’t believe the nurses,” a person who was there recalls. “And why should they? It didn’t make sense. How could a nurse know whether everyone who had an appointment between 9 and 10 P.M. would actually show up?”

The past year has seen numberless events that dramatize Israelis’ crisis of trust in the country’s governmental institutions: from a lack of personal example on the part of cabinet ministers who voted for restrictions that they themselves afterward violated, to cases of setting policy such as bringing in people suffering from COVID-19 from abroad, and the organized mass breaches of the restrictions by the ultra-Orthodox in the midst of lockdowns, in some cases after they’re leaders reached agreements with the police.

However, it’s possible that what happened at the Jerusalem vaccination site reflects best the depth of the crisis. Contrary to other phenomena involving the government, which had arranged to import the vaccine and determined who would be eligible for it, Israel’s vaccination project became a model of how the state can look after its citizens optimally. The operation, which drew praise worldwide, afforded Israelis an efficient, rapid, advanced and transparent service. But after the events of the past year, it looks as though even in this case the public is no longer willing to believe anyone.

By chance, the newscast on popular TV Channel 12 on the night in question quoted exceptional statements by an anonymous senior official at the Health Ministry. “It’s clear that a hermetic lockdown also has a political purpose, namely to present a victory photo over the coronavirus just before the election,” the official said. “We’ve failed, so we’re in lockdown. The politicians couldn’t cope with the pressure. The airport wasn’t shut down, there was no enforcement, and now the shopkeepers and business owners are paying the price.” The final comment encapsulates the whole problem: “We can live with the [current] level of infection, thanks to the rate of vaccinations, but we’ve lost the public’s trust.”

Indeed, during the past year, Israelis’ basic trust in the state and its institutions appears to have been shattered, just when it’s needed more than ever, with life changing dramatically, directly and instantly on the basis of government decisions, sometimes on a weekly basis. Over the past year, millions of Israelis have had to deal with a particularly challenging combination of three interlocking crises: an unprecedented health crisis, a jolting economic crisis and an acute political crisis, which has led to our heading next month to a fourth election in two years. That would seem to be enough to undermine the trust of people living from one lockdown to the next in the governing institutions and to make them doubt that those institutions will meet their needs in a national emergency like this.

Diminished resilience

One measure that embodies vividly the crisis of trust in Israel is the so-called “resilience index,” which has been published regularly since 2017. The index examines key aspects of the public mood among Jews and Arab citizens, such as the willingness to rely on the state’s institutions, fear and depression, hope and morale, national, community and personal resilience, and feelings of looming danger. The research for the index is conducted by Prof. Shaul Kimhi of the Stress and Resilience Research Center at Tel-Hai College, together with Prof. Yohanan Eshel and Dr. Hadas Marciano, his colleagues at the center. They work in collaboration with Dr. Bruria Adini, head of the Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Medicine in the School of Public Health of Tel Aviv University’s medical school.

The team has conducted four studies during the past eight months: in May 2020, at the end of the first lockdown; in July, when businesses had largely reopened, the rate of illness rose again and mass protests began across from the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem; last October, toward the end of the second lockdown and during the Jewish autumn holidays; and in January 2021, in the midst of the third lockdown and the vaccination campaign.

The findings of the fourth study show a sharp drop in several indicators, including the respondents’ sense of national and of personal resilience, and their trust in the government and in the prime minister. (Their level of hope was higher than in other recent studies, apparently as a result of the vaccination effort.) Concurrently, there has been a pronounced rise in such indicators as perceived threats from a political point of view, levels of anxiety and depression, and the sense of danger.

“When we emerged from the first lockdown, the indices showed that the Israeli public was relatively optimistic – that was after the prime minister told us to go out and have a good time,” says Kimhi, who has been tracking various aspects of resilience since the early 2000s. “But between the first study and the second one, national resilience showed the greatest decline. The central factor of trust in the government and in the prime minister plunged dramatically. The patriotism factor, which is usually the highest of the indicators, also fell markedly.”

Kimhi believes that the decline in trust in the government and prime minister is a key factor, one that can explain many of the phenomena that manifested in the past year.

Prof. Shaul Kimhi.Credit: Tel-Hai College

“People don’t believe the decision-makers,” he says. “When Ben-Gurion airport remains open and continues to take in arrivals infected with the coronavirus, and when there’s no equal enforcement among all segments of the public, it’s hard to be trustful. And when people lose trust, it’s even harder for them to cope with a catastrophe like the coronavirus. In a crisis, the most important factor at the state level is to be able to trust those who are managing things. When that is shattered, it’s disturbing. If we add the absence of personal example by public representatives, or the non-transparency of the agreement with Pfizer, even if that doesn’t change the actuality, the trust of the public itself is affected.”

Why is the political crisis perceived as more threatening than the economic crisis, which is impacting us dramatically, or the health crisis, which has the potential to endanger our life?

Kimhi: “I think it stems from the fact that the social-political schism in Israel is at an unprecedented level, and a very large number of people find that disturbing. One of the clearest examples of this is that many people fear that Israel will not continue to be a democracy. That indicates an extraordinary social rupture, stemming from the crisis of trust in the government. It’s apparent across all age groups. We are today a society that is polarized to an unparalleled degree.”

In crisis situations, there’s a yearning for a protective parental figure who projects confidence. We experience regression, and just as in childhood, in times like these we especially need this type of figure.

Haleli Yavnai

Setting bad examples

Zipi Israeli, from the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, is less alarmed in this regard. “The question of trust is one that occupies Israeli society, but there are two myths that need to be dispelled,” Dr. Israeli says. “First, even though there is a decline in trust, it is not necessarily dramatic. The level was low in 2018, too – long before the coronavirus pandemic and the [current] political crisis. A decline has been ongoing for years, and this past year we saw it more emphatically. Trust in state institutions is low in the whole Western world, and it’s a phenomenon that actually sprang from a positive trend. The higher the level of transparency and of reporting to the public becomes, the more the citizens’ sense of trust in the state institutions declines, because they know more about how the state is being managed.”

The second myth Israeli takes issue with is that the mistrust is sweeping and uniform. “In some cases there is a large difference in the level of trust people have for various institutions of the state system,” she maintains. “For example, trust in the Supreme Court and the army is high, whereas trust in the police and the Knesset is low. That can also happen within one and the same institution. We find that trust in the Israel Defense Forces is higher in the operational realm than the general trust in the IDF. In other words, the public places greater trust in the Iron Dome [rocket intercept system] than in the handling of volatile issues such as army pensions, corruption cases, the so-called submarines affair or the recruitment of women for combat roles. The dialogue about trust is very populist in nature.”

This year for the first time, the INSS, which surveys external security threats, actually cited domestic processes as seriously endangering Israel’s strategic situation.

“Israel is grappling with a multidimensional crisis that threatens its economic and political stability, societal cohesion, liberal democratic values, and fabric of civilian life,” the report states, and adds, “This complex crisis could undermine the foundations of national security in the broad sense, as it leads to a weakening of the state’s mechanisms and institutions; this has been reflected in functional difficulties, paralysis of decision-making processes, the loss of public trust in the government… and the undermining of social solidarity.”

The disintegration of trust in the state also has implications for individuals’ emotional well-being. During the first lockdown, along with other colleagues, Haleli Yavnai, an educational psychologist, launched a blog titled “Psychologists Speak Corona.” Its aim is to provide accessible information about the psychological implications of the epidemic and ways to alleviate mental distress.

“In crisis situations, there’s a yearning for a protective parental figure who projects confidence, which is why many charismatic leaders spring up in a crisis,” Yavnai says. “In a period like this, we experience regression, and just as in childhood we become accustomed to ‘big’ figures who look after us and our needs, in times like these we especially need this type of figure. When there is a leader who can be relied on, trust in him generates confidence; it calms and regulates the situation. When lack of trust in a leader is acute, no outlet exists for these emotional needs. Trust is essential in creating cooperation and in mobilizing the public. Israel’s decision makers lost their credibility when they violated their own regulations. We are not China, where people [typically] obey instructions and where there is enforce. In the vaccination campaign, the example set by the prime minister and the health minister to be the first to be inoculated led to a high public response.”

Life during the acute coronavirus crisis has exacted a psychological price, she adds: “People’s conceptions about the human environment and the world are undergoing change. This is given expression in everyday life: Mothers of small children are dealing with bosses who don’t understand their juggling act between household chores and their job, and at-risk populations have been isolated and have experienced a lack of consideration from their immediate environment. All this has psychological implications. With time we learn modes of coping and discover the forces that work for us, but the result can be a reduction of reliance on the establishment and the feeling that we need to increase our autonomy and depend on ourselves above all. An example is the rise in home-schooling at the expense of the education system.”

Charged relations

The term “autonomy” resonates in regard to two communities in Israeli society, which have turned out to be particularly vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis, both in terms of the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the crisis of trust between them and state institutions, as well as in terms of violating regulations.

“Among Arabs and Haredim [ultra-Orthodox],” Israeli explains, “there exists from the outset far lower trust, as compared with the rest of the population, and that can explain why they are less heedful of the instructions.”

“The Arabs and the Haredim are the two weakest populations economically and socially,” adds Ramzi Halabi, the former council head of the Druze town of Daliat al-Carmel in northern Israel, who is today an economic consultant and chairman of Tsofen, a nonprofit that promotes high-tech in the Israeli Arab community. I ask Dr. Halabi whether that community is relieved that the chief violators of the coronavirus restrictions are the ultra-Orthodox, who are apparently even worse violators than the Arabs.

Halabi: “There is relief on the part of the Arabs in Israel, but there are two main reasons for it. Among the heads of the Jewish religion, the Haredim heed their rabbis and [especially Rabbi Chaim] Kanievsky. Among the Arab public, the moment a decision was made, the houses of worship and the mosques were closed, and it was made clear that the local authorities would operate according to the instructions.

“True, there were large-scale weddings and funerals,” he continues, “but the leadership didn’t instruct those people to violate the rules, as happened within the Haredi population. There has been a natural decrease in gatherings during the past few months, but beyond that the Arab public displayed greater responsibility in dealing with the coronavirus compared to the Haredi public. But at the same time, look at the enforcement: Only a few fines are levied in Haredi locales, whereas enforcement among the Arabs is far more aggressive.”

Halabi notes Arab citizens’ lack of trust in state institutions when it comes to dealing with violence and crime within their community. “This is a highly charged issue. In 2020, 111 Arab citizens were murdered and only 30 indictments were filed. Indictments for offenses of illegally bearing arms were submitted in only 27 percent of the cases. What’s the result? Blatant lack of trust of the Arab population in the state’s law enforcement institutions and in their handling of violence.”

A protest against violence in the Arab community and the police's mishandling of it, earlier this month in Tamra.Credit: rami shllush

Economic Development Plan 922, which the Netanyahu government approved in 2015, allocates an unprecedented budget to investment in Arab society. On the face of it, that should bolster the Arab public’s trust in the state institutions.

Halabi: “That is definitely a ray of light and a decision in the right direction. But there are two problems. One is that the rate of implementation of the plan is relatively low – out of 15 billion shekels allocated [about $3.5 billion in 2015], only 9 billion was utilized to date – but maybe they’ll be able to do more spending, because the plan was extended to 2021. This is due to structural and bureaucratic problems, and it creates frustration among the Arab population; and second, some of the funds would have been included in the budget anyway, they simply wrapped it in that plan.”

What can bring about a genuine improvement in Arabs’ belief in state institutions?

This complex crisis leads to a weakening of the state’s mechanisms and institutions, as reflected in functional difficulties, paralysis of decision-making processes and the undermining of social solidarity.

INSS report

“First, true handling of the serious problem of violence in Arab society; and second, dealing with the economic underdevelopment – the economic improvement undergone by Arab society during the past decade was completely erased in the coronavirus pandemic. For example, the number of working Arab women, which increased by 15 percent in the past decade, faded in the pandemic, because most of those being fired in the Arab society are women.

“Arab society was hard hit because it is based on such [service] industries as the restaurant business, tourism, hospitality and retail sales, which were paralyzed in the past year, and the unemployment rate surged. Most of the Arab families in Israel are below the poverty line today – the rate rose from 48 percent to 53 percent. The income of Arabs in Israel 60 to 65 percent of that of Jews. Because they are employed in low-income jobs, the state is losing 30 billion shekels ($9.2 billion) in gross domestic product because the Arabs are not integrated into the economy. Integrating Arabs into state systems and institutions is win-win.”

Halabi notes an additional problem that has emerged during the pandemic. “Suddenly we needed to teach via Zoom – remote learning – and what did we discover? The digital gap! The Arab education system is not prepared for technology, there’s a tremendous shortage of computers; families with more than one child can’t cope. It’s creating difficulties and expanding gaps. There’s been an improvement in education in Arab society in the past decade, but the digital gap in schools is a serious problem.”

No understanding

In contrast to the Arab community, the Haredi school system is operating in an opposite way in two respects: rejection of technology and permitting ongoing, regular educational activities in many institutions. Ultra-Orthodox schools continued to operate during the lockdowns by order of rabbis, contrary to the instructions of the government, in which two Haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – are strategic partners. The general public has been furious with the community and their leadership for the organized violations.

Shalhevet Hasdiel, a Haredi journalist, publisher and marketing consultant from Bnei Brak, sees things differently. “The Haredim had to defend themselves both against attacks from the outside and against the coronavirus. It’s a population group that has large families and lives in conditions of dense crowding. It’s impossible to isolate people. The whole time we had to explain and apologize about why we weren’t being careful, weren’t being tested, weren’t wearing masks – that’s what I did for the past half a year.

“The gatherings among the Haredi public are a critical element in our life,” she continues. “The secular public has no idea: You can’t compare its communal-social needs to those of the Haredi public. There was no understanding or effort to be accommodating [on the part of the media and the public]. The health trauma and the economic blow they suffer are only a few aspects of the sense of persecution felt by the Haredi public. I felt like a leper. ‘Stay away,’ ‘Don’t come here, you live in Bnei Brak’ – and I work in general nonreligious society, where people get their information from the media.”

Hasdiel adds: “The Israeli media have displayed ignorance and a disconnect about the Haredim. There have been awful generalizations. The average Israeli doesn’t understand what a ‘Lithuanian’ is, what a Hasid is, and it’s really easy to blame the whole Haredi public. The essence of the Haredi world is Torah study, the rabbis view that as a weapon against the pandemic, because Torah study saves the Jewish world. That’s the approach. Why is the agenda of democracy in secular society more important than our agenda?”

For years, Hasdiel, one of the first women to work in the Haredi media, was a political correspondent for the newspaper Miyom Leyom and for the weekly Bakehila: “Haredi politicians didn’t know how to cope. On the one hand they have responsibility toward the rabbinic world – for the rabbis and yeshiva heads, the value of Torah learning and preservation of the community are what’s most important, and canceling Torah study is [equivalent to] spiritual death. On the other hand, they represent the government, which needs to enforce the law. [Shas leader Arye] Dery called for an internal Haredi spiritual stock-taking during the second lockdown and was roundly lambasted. Today it’s only the extremists who aren’t following the instructions, certain Hasidic courts that can be easily cited in order to stigmatize the entire Haredi public.

A clash between Haredim and police who came to close an Ashdod yeshiva during last month’s lockdown. Credit: Ilan Assayag

“I too am angry and even ashamed of the wedding that was held in January in Bnei Brak. That is not Torah study. It’s essential to hold a wedding with 500 guests? Why’s that? There’s a crisis outside. But that Hasidic court understood that 90 percent of them are already sick, they live among themselves, they do not mingle with the rest of society and they don’t care what the general population thinks. It’s the regular Haredi public that absorbs the ricochets.”

What will happen when we have all been vaccinated, and we emerge from the lockdowns? Can the rift with Haredim be healed?

Hasdiel: “Until the coronavirus pandemic, there was a tendency among Haredim toward rapprochement with Israeli society. There was a move toward integration into the job market, in higher education. That took a setback during the past year. The majority of Haredim will continue to mistrust the police and the judicial system, and it will be difficult to heal the wounds. The extremists will continue to be extremists. But what’s causing this rift is the disconnect and the lack of familiarity of the state institutions and the media with the Haredi way of life. A positive process can begin with an understanding of our way of life.”

The coronavirus vaccine is a clear and dramatic game-changer from the medical point of view, and can help restore life in Israel to its previous routine. But can the national vaccination campaign also bring about renewed trust of the citizens in the state?

Prof. Kimhi is skeptical on this point. “How will the vaccine be a game-changer [in the long run], if there are a million jobless people, the economic crisis just deepens, and the political crisis is exacerbated?

“The coronavirus brought to the surface the rifts within our nation in a way that cannot be denied,” he continues. “We live in a country where not everyone obeys the law, and there are ‘tribes’ who do as they please. The important point is not whether the national resilience will improve in the wake of the vaccination, but what can be inferred about the future in terms of our ability to cope with a strategic crisis. Our studies indicate that from many points of view we are not much better prepared than we were a year ago, and that the social and political divide severely weakens us.”

Dr. Israeli is more sanguine: “Even after this past year, the public is all in all satisfied with life, and now they’re optimistic about the future. They think that in another five years, our situation will be better [than it is today]. When we started conducting our survey, in November, when there was no lockdown and reports were starting to arrive about vaccines, we asked the public whether Israel is capable of coping successfully with various threats – a long list, including external and domestic threats. This year we also added a question about whether the state would ultimately cope successfully with the coronavirus. Of those who replied, 70 percent said yes. That was one of the highest figures in the survey and it transcends political views. When the public here looks in macro at the State of Israel, it’s a positive look.”

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